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‘Sell by’, ‘best before’, and ‘use by’ dates - what’s the difference?

Food waste is a huge global issue, and many of us can contribute to it without even realising.

The good news is that there are many different food waste solutions, and one of the easiest is simply knowing the difference between the ‘sell by’, ‘best before’, and ‘use by’ dates.

These dates are used by companies to let us know when it’s likely that food will go bad, but they’re often still confusing for consumers.

So, before you see a date on your food and throw it straight in the bin, here’s everything you need to know about the different types.

‘Sell by’ date

This date is not designed for customer’s use - it’s simply used to inform retailers when they should take the item off their shelves.

There’s some leeway in this date as well - the retailers may have to remove it from their shelves, but there’s still time to use it at home.

This means that if you uncover a packet of food hiding at the back of the fridge and it’s past its ‘sell by’ date, it should still be fine to eat.

It’s always worth having a quick look and smell first though, just to check that it’s OK. We recommend trying to use it sooner rather than later too.

‘Best before’ date

The ‘best before’ date is all about quality.

It indicates how long food will stay at its best, so the item will keep all its original flavours and textures until this date. Any later and it should still be safe to eat, but unfortunately it won’t be at its highest quality.

It’s important to remember that this date is only valid if it’s been stored correctly though, so please follow the instructions on the packet.

A good example of this is a pack of crisps. After its ‘best before’ date, they might be a little stale, but they should still be perfectly edible.

Again, please look at the food and smell it before you tuck in though, just to check that it’s still good to eat.

If you find something in your kitchen that’s past its ‘best before’ date, it’s always good to use it sooner rather than later, just to stop it going off and going to waste.

So, as soon as you discover it, try to plan it into one of your meals, or make sure you put it at the front of the cupboard so when you next go in you’ll remember to use it.

‘Use by’ date

Where ‘best before’ is about quality, ‘use by’ dates are all about safety.

They tend to be on foods that are highly perishable such as meat or ready-to-eat salads. With any food that has a ‘use by’ date, it’s really important that you follow any instructions on the packet, especially in terms of storage or freezing.

After the ‘use by’ date though, the food is considered to be unsafe to eat, even if it looks and smells OK.

For example, eating fresh chicken after its ‘use by’ date has the potential to give you food poisoning, so you shouldn’t use it.

To avoid this type of food from going off and going to waste, make sure you regularly check the dates on the packets in your fridge. If something is close to its ‘use by’ date, try and use it as soon as possible or freeze it for later use.

You must freeze it before the ‘use by’ date, and once you defrost it, make sure you use it within 24 hours.


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